Freedom and the Smart City

The concept of the ‘Smart City’ is in its very essence a progressive endeavour. It is trying to apply technology and intelligence to address challenges that cities face in order to safeguard a positive future for the city’s inhabitants. Therefore, in order to guide it, it must be informed by a conception of what ‘progress’ is and means; and not just universally, but locally. How should progress be articulated in a vision of a smart city, so that activity can be aligned positively with this progressive future?

Activity that will, and should, be largely uncontrolled in a system as complex as a major city. This seems to me to be the crucial challenge to smart city policy in general, and to the success of Sheffield’s emerging smart city activity in particular.

We can list and publish the values, concepts and themes that we want the city’s smart initiatives to take into account — and that is what we have attempted to do in the forthcoming SmartSheffield report. This provides a useful guide and point of reference (provided it changes and adapts over time), and may be enough for most purposes. However I think more is needed to inspire people to action; to present an overarching, philosophical rationale that describes the ambition — the WHY we should do any of this.

Cities can do incredible things when the whole population is lined up behind them to help to push. So what, I’ve long wondered to myself, could inspire such common effort?

A while ago, I was struck by the words of philosopher Catherine Audard during an expert panel on progress and human development at the LSE. Audard borrows from Amartya Sen, John Rawls and John Stuart Mill, amongst others, when she says that most resource-based approaches to defining progress leave out a crucial factor: namely the priority of freedom. Not freedom only in the liberal sense of state-assured rights and liberties, but freedom in terms of choice and action. This, she says, is above all what makes us human, and what makes makes life worth living. It is at the root of our happiness.

This freedom, though, is not simply a matter of having many choices to make, or being provided with many options to choose from, but crucially is characterised by the ability to rank our preferences, our needs and our desires according to a timescale. That we are beings that are both changing and continuous, and that it is through our consciousness of time, memory and anticipation that we are able to produce plans for life.

This is what constitutes true freedom: our ability to rank our preferences, plan our lives, make personal and collective progress towards ambitions and not be stuck in one point in time.

For policy, this means moving away from thinking of people as consumers of goods and benefits, and towards an active vision of the human person as a ‘doer’, with the ability to convert resources into utilities. This is what I believe our vision of progress should be anchored to: A conception of the individual as a dignified, free being who shapes their life in cooperation and reciprocity with others.

Audard says:

“If we turn from measuring the resources that the self has access to, to listening to the human person herself as a developing being, we have a good indicator of progress in terms of agency and freedom. In particular if we look at the temporal horizon for self development that exists, or not, we have an excellent indicator of quality of life. And also of numerous social pathologies that go beyond injustice. Like being stuck forever in your territory, in your space, in your housing estate, in unemployment, out of school, etc.”

I think all of our smart city initiatives must be able to tell a convincing story about how they are enhancing the freedom of the city’s citizens, in this way — their ability to have improved agency over their lives and lived experiences.

This, no less, is the challenge that our city, our officials, our firms and partners must meet for our smart innovations to be successful.

Originally published at